The Tigers didn't start Monroe against Indians left-hander Cliff Lee last month, but an injured Dmitri Young didn't give them such flexibility this time around. After going 1-for-19 against Lee, Monroe went for a double, then went yard for a tiebreaking two-run homer in what ended up a 5-4 Tigers win at Jacobs Field.
Monroe is far from the only Tigers hitter to struggle against Lee, at least recently. When Lee held Monroe to 1-for-6 last year, he limited Detroit hitters as a group to two runs on nine hits in 14 innings for the season. When Monroe watched their last meeting from the dugout before entering as a late-inning replacement, the Tigers watched Lee hold them to a run in 7 1/3 innings, the only tally coming on a Chris Shelton homer in what ended up a 1-0 Detroit victory April 16 at Comerica Park. One of the few Tigers to hit Lee well last year, ironically, was Young, who went 3-for-6 off him but has missed both their meetings this year with injuries.
The Tigers, however, have shown a way of eventually getting to strong pitchers lately. When Minnesota's Johan Santana entered the seventh inning with a no-hitter last Sunday, he went from that to facing the potential tying runner on base in a five-batter span. The Tigers still lost that day, but they showed signs of life.
"It may not be the first time. It may not be the second time through," leadoff hitter Curtis Granderson said. "But guys are staying positive enough to know that it may not be the early at-bats. Craig Monroe's a prime example of that. He's hitting great from the seventh inning on."
Five of Monroe's nine home runs have come in the seventh inning or later. He went deep for a seventh-inning insurance run in a 3-1 win over the Royals May 2 at Comerica Park after his two-run homer in the same frame a night earlier ended up deciding a 3-2 win over Kansas City.
"You look at that lineup one through nine, and there's a hero, I think, in that one through nine every day," Monroe said. "There's someone who can drive the ball out of the ballpark. There's someone who can come up with a big hit. Jim [Leyland] talked about it early. We had a lot of good players last year. How do you turn those good players into a good turn? The process is starting. We're starting to work this thing out."
But Monroe has hit the Royals for a .295 average. He had not hit Lee well until Friday, though he didn't feel that way facing him.
"It's funny, because facing him, I don't feel like I was 1-for-18 [entering the night], to be honest with you," Monroe said. "Not to take anything away from him at all, but I feel like he's very hittable for me. He likes his fastball, and I'm a fastball hitter. It's just unfortunate I hadn't gotten any hits off of him."
Monroe's ninth home run of the season came on a fastball following a Shelton single leading off the seventh. Monroe drove Lee's 2-1 pitch 399 feet to right-center field. In his previous at-bat, he lined a changeup into left field for a double leading off the fifth before scoring on a Brandon Inge single for a 2-0 lead.
Manager Leyland keeps saying he doesn't want his lineup relying on home runs for offense. What he appreciates, he said, is that many of the home runs have been in important situations.
"He's hit as many big home runs as anybody this year," Leyland said of Monroe.
Bigger than Monroe's judgment at the plate, in Leyland's mind, was his judgment in the field. After Monroe's double leading off the top of the fifth, he came back to take a leadoff man off the basepaths in the bottom half. Eduardo Perez hit a drive off the left-field wall against Tigers starter Kenny Rogers, but Monroe played it perfectly off the bounce. His throw into second base beat Perez by enough of a margin that Placido Polanco's tag was waiting for him as he slid in.
Three pitches later, Casey Blake hit a 406-foot drive to left-center, the first of two Blake homers on the game. Thanks to Monroe's play, it was a solo homer instead of a game-tying two-run shot. In a one-run game, that ended up just about as important as the hits.
"That's the kind of stuff I like," Leyland said. "It gets lost in the shuffle, but in the middle of all that, Craig Monroe made a great defensive play."
Rogers (6-2) battled his control for much of the chilly Cleveland night, falling behind in some counts. Yet with two runs allowed over 6 1/3 innings, he was solid enough to move back into a tie for the AL wins lead with New York's Mike Mussina.
Blake's second home run greeted Joel Zumaya, who started him off with a 97-mph fastball with one out in the seventh. Zumaya finished out the inning without further damage, but Fernando Rodney allowed a four-pitch walk and a Jason Michaels single to put the potential winning run at the plate with the middle of Cleveland's order up to bat.
A Polanco throwing error denied a double play as Grady Sizemore scored. Rodney stranded the tying run in scoring position by popping out Travis Hafner and inducing Victor Martinez to ground out.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.